* China overtakes Japan as biggest coal importer for 1st time
* Unclear whether it will maintain position in 2012
* 2011 China coal imports up 10.8 pct yr/yr (Adds graphic, details)
By Osamu Tsukimori
TOKYO, Jan 26 (Reuters) - China overtook Japan as the world’s top coal importer for the first time in decades last year, partly driven by robust Chinese demand and as Japan’s imports fell after steelmakers curbed output and a huge quake damaged some coal-fired power plants.
Japan had held the No.1 position since at least 1975 until 2010, the International Energy agency’s Coal Information showed.
China, also the world’s biggest coal producer and consumer, imported 182.4 million tonnes of the fuel in 2011, 10.8 percent higher than a year earlier, data from the country showed.
Japan’s customs-cleared imports fell 5.1 percent to 175.2 million tonnes last year, hurt by slack demand for coking coal as steelmakers curbed production.
Hirofumi Furukawa, expert at Japan Coal Energy Center, said China was likely to keep No.1 position this year.
“China’s domestic production will be managed by the government. The costs are rising and when it comes to competition, foreign coal is cheaper, so there will be pressure for imports,” Furukawa said.
“Some say it will rise to 200 million tonnes (in 2012). Japan, on the other hand, is expected to see steady imports (in 2012).”
China’s coal consumption is expected to remain robust as new coal-fired power generation comes onstream and demand from the cement industry, the second-largest driver of thermal coal consumption, is also seen rising as the government makes a strong push to urbanise.
A Reuters poll last month, however, showed the country’s coal imports are expected to grow at a slower pace in 2012, as domestic appetite moderates and home production rises.
In January-November, Japan’s coking coal imports dropped 9.4 percent to 63.5 million tonnes from a year ago, according to Reuters calculations.
Japan’s imports of thermal coal used in power generation, meanwhile, edged down 0.4 percent to 101.2 million tonnes in 2011 as the magnitude 9.0 earthquake in March damaged coal-fired power plants along the country’s northeast coast.
The March quake is expected to lower Japanese utilities’ consumption of thermal coal by 0.2 percent in the year ending March 31, the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ) projected last month.
If nuclear reactors did not resume operations amid public anxieties following the Fukushima plant disaster, thermal coal demand could jump by 8.3 percent in 2012/13, IEEJ said.
Thermal coal demand should decline by 7.2 percent in 2012/13 if reactors restarted from next summer, IEEJ added.
Additional reporting Chen Aizhu in BEIJING; Editing by Joseph Radford and Sugita Katyal